When Srila Prabhupada sat down in Tompkins Square Park, New York in 1966, pulled out a small pair of hand cymbals, and began singing kirtana, nobody in the small crowd that gathered had heard this chanting before. It was a sublime, yet strange experience, as the listeners heard the exotic Sanskrit mantras for the first time.
Fast forward to the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, and the most likely place that you would expect to hear kirtana was on the sidewalks of the world’s big cities, where ISKCON centres would regularly pour forth devotees onto the streets to dance and chant in ecstasy, fulfilling the prediction of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu spoken some 500 years earlier, that the holy names of Krishna would be chanted in every town and village of the world.
Now, as we head further into the new millennium, an interesting phenomenon is taking place, and it seems as though that most ancient of religious practices – kirtana – is rapidly becoming the next big thing.
In yoga studios across the globe, rooms that had been presided over by silent concentration as practitioners focussed on the postures of hatha-yoga, with the occasional hush tones of ‘om’, are now resounding with the sound of Hare Krishna kirtana, and professional kirtaneers such as Krishna das and Jai Uttal are playing to packed houses in yoga centers across the globe.
While the Vedic scriptures recommend that the serious practitioner should exclusively hear the Holy Name vibrated by one who is a pure devotee of Lord Krishna, the Nama-Acharya Srila Haridas Thakur has explained that if one chants the Holy Name to refer to something other than the Lord, but without any obvious offense to the Name – as in the case of Ajamila who chanted the name or Narayana, even though he was using it to represent his son – one will experience the second stage of chanting, technically known as nama-abhasa or the clearing stage of chanting. This stage is characterized as giving an experience of liberation from the material pangs, thus giving a feeling of relief and bliss to the practitioner.
In a Time magazine article on the explosion of kirtana, those who attended the chanting reported that they felt relief from their stress, and a feeling of well being and peace from the external influences of their lives, just as Srila Haridas Thakur has described.
It is interesting to note, however, that these practitioners did not describe an awakening of devotion to the Supreme Lord Krishna, the actual object of many of the prayers that they are singing.
Srila Haridas has explained that to reach the third stage of chanting, suddha-nama, or pure chanting, the practitioner has to become completely freed from the ten offenses to the holy name (put link here to ten offenses page on iskcon.com), and Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu has also explained that to achieve pure devotion for the Lord, one must first receive the seed of devotion from a pure devotee, or his representative.
Once a person has received this seed of devotion, they must become a gardener, carefully culitivating this seed of devotion, by watering it with the hearing and chanting of kirtana until it grows big and strong, and eventually bears the fruits of love of Godhead.
Thus the devotees of ISKCON continue to have a unique role to play in the evolution of ‘kirtana consciousness’ in the Western world. While the popular kirtaneers draw crowds with their polished musical kirtana presentations, devotees who have received the seed of devotion, in disciplic succession from Lord Caitanya, the predecessor acharyas, Srila Prabhupada, and the current spiritual masters, have the special ability to pass on this seed of devotion to sincere seekers of the real bhakti-rasa that is contained in the holy names of the Lord, when chanted in kirtana by His loving devotees.